What the art of storytelling can learn from a whale called ‘Big Blue.’

A few months ago we made a beautiful short film telling the inspirational story of a big wave surfer from Maui. We spent months scouting the island for perfect locations, practicing with drones and underwater cameras and developing the narrative, storyboard, script and soundtrack. All this with a view to making not just a film but a ‘social content pack’ of main edits, making-ofs, YouTube trailers, Instagram teasers, Twitter posters, Facebook gifs and media editorial. The success of this ‘film’ would be defined by its social engagement, which these days means (infuriatingly un-ambitiously) how many people watched more than half of it on YouTube!

The production team decamped to Hawaii for the shoot with storyboard in one hand and camera in the other. On day one we shot out in the ocean, grabbing footage of our surf star paddling his board, silhouetted against the setting sun. Nice work if you can get it. And then, out of the blue, quite literally, a humpback whale rose majestically out of the water, ten feet from our man. She gave him the beady eye, shot a gentle ‘hello’ from her blowhole, rolled to the right…and went back down from whence she came.

Blimey. A massive whale. A real one.

It took us a while to take in what had happened. Our new surfer friend hadn’t experienced anything quite like it before – you can see his reaction on film. Our Director was frantically checking to see what we’d caught (it was good). Our client’s excitement blew their ‘this wasn’t on the storyboard’ concerns out of the water. ‘Big Blue’ – as she became known – had thrown us a bit of a curve ball.

Over the coming weeks, across the rest of the shoot and throughout the editing process, Big Blue had quite an effect on things. Fundamentally, we now had a ‘killer shot’ to play with that we hadn’t planned for! How should we use it? Old-fashioned storytelling suggests you might save it for a climactic moment. Today’s YouTube metrics tell us to stick the money shot up front and secure the eyeballs early on. But, more importantly than all this, Big Blue reminded us of three fundamentals of the art of storytelling:

1. Create stories that have room to breathe. Any story that only works if every shot is captured as sketched on the storyboard and every line of script is delivered word-perfect will never have the emotional depth of a story that can go it’s own way. Yes, we need the brand story to sit strong at the core. The trick is to keep the narrative big enough to allow some freedom.

2. Be creatively ambitious, not a slave to media metrics.
Story first, channel second. A great story, well told to a receptive audience will overpower all the cynical media metrics you can throw at it. We didn’t use Big Blue’s surprise appearance for our opening shot. We drew the viewer in with a subtle underwater sequence…then hit ‘em hard with the whale! From then on, you know you’re in for a ride.

3. Always be open-minded about where a story could go on set. True creativity doesn’t like rules. Yes, you need a core narrative to stay true to – and in the world of marketing this is quite rightly what the brand wants to get across. But, beware the storyboard written in stone. Keep your narrative tight enough to say what you want to say, but loose enough to allow different ways to say it.

Channel proliferation, cynical media metrics and ‘best practice’ techniques are leading the art of storytelling down a commoditised and formulaic path.

When Big Blue said hello that day, she didn’t just help us make a great film. She reminded us that we should always be ambitious and stay open to that little bit of magic that could come along at any moment. When hopefully the cameras will be rolling…